I know that we’re supposed to be discussing mixing; however, I really can’t stress enough how important the recording is when trying to mix vocals. If you’re the one in control of the vocal recording, record the signal to peak around -1dB to -3dB to cover the noise floor.
Additionally, ensure that all air conditioners or other noisemakers are off, that you place the microphone correctly, and that you’re recording in a room with either pleasant reflections or very little whatsoever.
Let’s listen to a well-recorded vocal versus one that simulates poor recording techniques and environments.
When equalizing vocals, I often find that there are 3 main sections that I often attenuate - the first is the low end. By attenuating it with a high-pass filter, you remove noise, maybe some hum, plosives, and other elements of the vocal that interfere with it’s clarity and perceived quality.
Next, roughly 700Hz is another problem area when a lot of nasally tones lie. This can be attenuated with a bell filter.
Finally, I often attenuate some sibilance before de-essing so that the de-esser doesn’t have to work as hard.
Choosing which compressor you use on your vocals is incredibly important - different compressor types and models have drastically different tonalities, so be mindful about what you use. For example, an emulation or real version of an 1176 will sound very different than a Teletronix or emulation LA2A.
Let’s listen to these 2 using nearly identical amounts of compression and make up gain, and pay attention to how the different compressors completely change the vocal’s tone.
Although lofi effects and processing are typically only thought of as being useful for lofi genres, they work well in just about any genre in which a distinct vocal tone is needed. For example, consider using a low-pass filter on the vocals to both tame and make them distinct.
Another great example is low-speed tape emulation, which increases saturation and compression , as well as imparts a unique frequency response on the vocal.
Getting your vocal to blend in with the mix can be very difficult - even if you’ve achieved the right dynamics, level, and timbre, it still may feel too separate from the mix. If this is the case try using reverb only on the mids of the vocal.
By creating reflections in this area, it blurs the vocal so to speak, making it sound less distinct and more a part of the surrounding instrumentation.
If you want crisp vocals you can use an exciter on the main vocal track, or you can use a parallel exciter to increase the level of the top end. For this example, I’ll use Fresh Air by Slate Digital on an auxiliary channel/bus send and use aggressive settings.
With the vocal sent to this track, I’ll blend in the parallel exciter with the original signal. This is great for rap vocals or anything that needs to be super crisp.
I’ve come across some chain in which the de-esser is placed later on, but this can cause some issues. By placing the de-esser later in the chain, it’ll most likely need to work harder on any sibilance which was amplified by additive equalization or harmonic distortion.
That’s why I like to use subtractive EQ first in my chain and the de-esser second. Let’s listen to how the placement of a de-esser affects the vocal.
Although volume automation is useful, keep in mind that it comes after all of our inserts, meaning that it can’t control how our inserts are affecting the signal. If you want more uniform volume and processing, use clip gain - which affects the amplitude of the signal pre-processing.
Also, while you’re using clip gain on the vocal, you might as well attenuate some plosives and sibilance.
With our volume controlled at the beginning of the chain with clip gain, we can use automation to control the various parameters of our plugins. For example, we can alter the delay time for a creative effect, or maybe the ratio to increase compression in a particular section.
I like to use the latch function for this - this way I can control the parameter while the track is playing, and write automation data in. This makes automation more like a performance and often results in more unique automation.